The Gettysburg Address: Poetry

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This speech was not just any speech, this speech would become the fire and passion that would lead the Union to victory over the Confederate States of America. This speech was the greatest speech that Abraham Lincoln ever delivered, and to this day it remains one of the greatest speeches in United States’ history. Because of its brevity and poetic flow, the Gettysburg Address has become one of the most repeated speeches to date. Parts of it were even used in the famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was a small apportionment of a dedication presentation where an area of the battlefield would be transformed into the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This dedication ceremony would take place on November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the Union victory in Gettysburg. (To read about this victory and it as a “turning point” in the Civil War, click here. To start my Civil War mini-series from the beginning, click here.)

Edward-Everett
Edward Everett

David Willis, the committee president of the Gettysburg National Park and the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, had a full afternoon schedule for the dedication ceremony. With music (4 different songs), prayer, and a two-hour speech by Edward Everett, President Lincoln’s “few appropriate remarks” were supposed to be just a formality. As the town of Gettysburg was still distraught from the battle that had ravaged their town and knowing that the Union soldiers, while recently victorious, had suffered a substantial blow, President Lincoln wanted to reassure everyone that a United States victory was certain. Edward Everett, one of the most acclaimed orators of his time, delivered an eloquent and lengthy speech (13,607 words, roughly two hours), to commemorate the men who had fallen and fought in the recent battle. Once finished, I am sure that Everett felt confident in his speech–that part of his, not Lincoln’s, would fall off the lips of thousands, for generations to come.

Speaking fewer than three minutes, a speech containing ten sentences and consisting of a mere two-hundred and seventy words (ish–I will explain shortly), the Gettysburg Address would stir the emotions of all men, evoking patriotism and reminding them of the principles which led to the America’s freedom. The primary objective of Lincoln’s speech was one of politics; preserve the Union. If you listen and analyze the speech, it is poetic–from start to finish. With its conciseness and abundance of literary devices, Lincoln’s speech would contain many characteristics of common day poetry, such as: allusion, alliteration, antithesis, grammatical parallelism, and repetition. The speech was significant in that it reminded everyone as to the war’s underlying goal. The Civil War was a purification of ethical and moral principles, an opportunity to rectify the errors of the Founding Fathers. These men, who used the expression “all men are created equal” in their country’s founding document, started a nation with slavery in common existence. “As to how ‘all men are created equal’ meant that one man could own another?”, would be the question of oversight which would eventually divide a nation.

Lincoln-Gettysburg
President Lincoln to give Gettysburg Address

Alluding to the Bible and the Declaration of Independence (both documents relying on trust that had proven to lead America true), President Lincoln reminded the crowd that in 1776 (past), the Founding Fathers gathered together and declared their independence based on liberty and equality of all men. Lincoln then states that the principles on which America was founded were under attack. He presses further on that concept. That the fight is not just for America’s future, but to prove that any country under these principles could survive.  The second section of the speech (present) is for the soldiers, fallen or alive, and their cause. Whether living or not, all soldiers had suffered at this battle and their efforts were not to be forgotten. He believed that their cause was of such importance, that when victorious the whole world would know. The last portion (future) was based upon the outcome. Lincoln believed that even though the Union would be victorious, that the Union must be born again. The Union would prosper in battle and after regrouping, have a “new birth.” Lincoln believed that a new Union must be ushered in, one based under God, with liberty and equality, and a democracy “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

The Gettysburg Address: Abraham Lincoln

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

While his speech originally received mixed review, Edward Everett sent this letter to Lincoln the next day:

Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the cemetery. I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.

As for my opinion, it gives me chills! Just quick note. Earlier, I mentioned that the length of the speech was 270 words (ish). There are five known copies of the speech in existence, all with a different word here or there. The version that most historians use is the Bliss version. Even though it was written after the speech, it is the only one dated and with Abraham Lincoln’s signature affixed to it.

If you haven’t heard the Gettysburg Address, please take the short time (2:32) to listen to it.

8 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve stood in that spot and the cemetery (and the surrounding cemeteries) continue to be quite powerful places! I usually do not ever put my own links in someone else’s blog post… but in this case I think you’ll find them fitting. My apologies in advance!

    http://mysightpicture.wordpress.com/2010/07/01/gettysburg-july-1-1863/

    http://mysightpicture.wordpress.com/2010/07/02/july-2-1863/

    http://mysightpicture.wordpress.com/2010/07/03/july-3-1863/

    http://mysightpicture.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/lest-we-forget-2/

  2. “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” I want very much to believe this, but my dark and cynical suspicion is that Wall Street rules.

  3. Great article!
    Truly eloquent political speeches are often quite poetic, and when they are, are often effective. The Gettysburg Address is one of many speeches descended from the tradition Greek and Roman orators, political and otherwise.

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